How Online Organizing Made a Novelist of Me

Crossposted from my EchoDitto blog.

I’ve always been a writer. I haven’t always been confident about calling myself a writer. I guess it’s because I discovered long ago that telling people you’re a writer almost always meant their next question would be “What books have you written?” That usually resulted in a lot hemming a hawing on my part before admitting that I hadn’t written any. No more. While the advent of blogging may have softened the hard and fast rule that “writers write books,” and you aren’t a writer if you haven’t written one, I no longer flinch at that question. Not since I discovered National Novel Writing Month, where some great online organizing helps turn thousands of of people into novelists in just 30 days — including me.

I wasn’t sure I’d accept the challenge of National Novel Writing Month (a/k/a NaNoWriMo) when I stumbled across a link to the website. A novel (actually, a first draft) in 30 days? Fifty-thousand words, and daily word quotas — at least 1,667 per day — to accomplish it? I had my doubts, but I also had the germ of an idea for a novel that I’d been carrying around in my head for more than ten years. Every time I took a stab at writing it, I quickly undermined myself because (1) I hadn’t done the research necessary to write it and (2) it wasn’t going to be perfect right out of the gate. My way hadn’t helped get the thing written in 10 years, and NaNoWriMo at least gave me a goal, a deadline and — most importantly — permission to be imperfect.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

That was enough to get me in the door, but there was another benefit I didn’t expect: a community. Writing is mostly a lonely art. Sure, there can be dizzying heights of fame and glamor, but before Oprah calls, or the Nobel committee letter arrives, or the New York Times asks for correct spelling of your name for its bestseller list, it’s just you and the blank screen or paper awaiting the words you’ll put there. Not so with NaNoWriMo.

Once I took the plunge, registered, and filled out my profile I became one of thousands of aspiring (and returning) NaNo novelists. I waded into the numerous online forums to find them offering one another tips, advice and support. Need some help on character realism or plot advice? There’s a forum for it. Pulling your hair out with frustration? Got one for that too? Everything going swimmingly? Here’s your forum. But there are also regionally based forums right down to local groups.

It was when found the D.C. metro forum that I knew I’d found my local support group of other writers. I’d also stumbled upon the NaNo version of a meet up: the “write-in.” That’s when NaNo participants step out into the daylight long enough to lug their laptops to the nearest coffee shop, and huddle together with other NaNo novelists to bang out some significant dents in their word counts. Oh yeah, and there’s a bit of socializing too.

However, since I won, I don’t want to make it sound too easy. Writing 50,000 words in a month is harder than it sounds. Miss one day of your word quota and you’ll find yourself slipping pretty far behind. There are late, late nights of writing to reach your daily goal and maybe even exceed it a little. After about two weeks, your body starts to revolt after too much time spent sitting in front of the computer (I had a head start on this) and too many meals based on whatever you can order out or forage from the fridge. My right arm — already suffering from a bad case of blogger’s elbow — is no longer speaking to me, and my digestive system threatened mutiny if it didn’t get a break before the onset of the holiday season. Despite all that, bleary-eyed and battle weary, I managed to make it to the winners circle with 9,765 NaNo novelists ; and I made it with 57,161 words under my belt.

So, I wrote a book. Now what? Well, a couple of days ago I picked up a spiral-bound copy of my novel. (It still feels weird to refer to “my novel.”) It is now safely tucked in a drawer, where it will remain for a month, after which I’ll take another look at it and decide whether to start revising it. (Or whether it’s any good at all.) Should I accept that mission, I have a couple of choices. I can plunge into NaNoWriMo’s sister event, National Novel Editing Month (NaNoEdMo, of course) in March. If I’m feeling really adventurous, I can try my luck on Glypho — an online, open source, communal novel-writing experiment — but I think I’ve invested too much to let anyone else finish it for me at this point. I may or may not send it to a publisher, depending on how I feel about it in the end, or I might publish it myself at Lulu.Com.

The point is, it’s done. I finished it, and it’s mine. So the next time I tell someone I’m a writer, and they ask “What books have you written?” I can answer them. Who’d have guessed that the web and some savvy online organizing would finally make a novelist of me?

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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